When does it belong to me?

I’m fascinated by the way institutional America is fighting back against the culture shift underway. Its first argument is that everything about it is “bad,” and that’s followed by attempts to rewrite rules — and even history — to hang on to the money machine they used to own. I don’t deny the right to do this; I just find it intellectually stimulating and amusing at the same time.

record player from the early 60sI was just yesterday talking about the era of my life, which included the rise of rock-n-roll. Here’s how that all worked:

Band made record
Band or agent pitched record to radio stations
Good music = good ratings = advertising money
Airplay = record sales
We “bought” records and albums
The record (usually a 45) belonged to the buyer
We shared our 45s and albums at parties, etc

The Grateful DeadIt was always all about record sales back then. Performers appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show saw record sales jump the next day, and that was the objective. Then came The Grateful Dead with a business model that emphasized experiencing concerts over record sales. The Dead didn’t give a crap who did what with their music, because the experience of the event was the main thing.

Fast forward to today, and we find an industry — the recording industry — struggling to maintain its grip on music, because technology has made it easier to do what we did in the 60s — share “our” music with our friends. In between, we had the cassette generation, a big part of which was copying “our” records or tapes to share with our friends. In the digital world, however, copying has been shifted to mean stealing. In order to get to that, the whole industry has had to shift the understanding of buying any form of music. We don’t “own” it anymore; we “lease” the rights to play it in the form it was purchased. If push came to shove in this understanding, it would be illegal for me to burn a copy of a CD even for my own use.

This smacks of wool over the eyes to somebody like me, but to younger people, I suppose it’s just the way things are.

And isn’t it odd that the model of the Grateful Dead is becoming more viable for others in the music industry? Their scarcity model — that of experiencing performances — has held, while the mechanical, one-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four model of “the industry” is crumbling. In this way, the Dead will live forever.

This model of “lease” instead of “buy” is now circulating amongst the lawyers representing any arm of the copyright industry. If I buy a movie video, I can’t make a copy for my daughter across town; I must physically take her the original, which, at least for now, she can watch. I say “for now,” because if you follow the lease model out to the end, my daughter should have to pay for even watching my original on a different DVD player than my own.

Last week, a Federal judge rightly sided with YouTube in the $1 billion dollar suit filed by Viacom over copyrighted videos uploaded by YouTube users wanting to share them with friends. The judge booted the suit stating that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provided safe harbor for YouTube. Viacom is appealing. They have to, because their belief is that if you only “lease” a video, you cannot share it with friends in this manner. I think the appeal is dangerous, because they will lose that one, too, and then where will this new way of thinking be?

So does anything I “buy” from the copyright industry really belong to me? On that question hinges the future, and it’ll be fun to watch the twisting and turning in Congress and the Courts.


  1. […] all comes from one source, and that belongs to everybody. I’ve written about this many times (here, […]

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